Milwaukee-area native Samantha Abramson, a Jewish professional with experience at key institutions in Washington, D.C., is the new executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center.
Abramson started in December, after a year-long search. HERC, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, was led by Shay Pilnik until early in 2020, when he resigned to serve as the founding director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University in New York City.
HERC sends educators to present in public school classrooms and sponsors events including talks by Holocaust survivors, among many other activities. HERC is an effort created by the Jewish community that often serves people outside that community.
“We are educating a largely non–Jewish audience and many times an audience that doesn’t know a lot about the Holocaust,” Abramson said.
It’s important to teach what happened, but that’s not all. “The ‘how,’ to me, is so important,” she said. “We need to understand how this happened so that we don’t let it happen again.
“I think it’s really more important now than ever.”
While in graduate school at George Washington University, Abramson interned with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and worked on a traveling exhibition about Nazi propaganda. She led student tours during that internship and thereafter for years, and was struck by the questions people ask, especially teenagers. Many of them were not Jewish.
“They want to know; how did this happen?” Abramson said. “It’s a complicated question.
“We have to talk about the role of bystanders in society and the role of collaborators. In a healthy democracy, we as citizens, we protect one another, we look out for one another and we treat each other with respect, and we let our voices be heard, and this is something that didn’t happen in Nazi Germany.”
After the holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., Abramson worked in fundraising and as a program manager for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, D.C. The society works to educate the public on the role of the Washington, D.C. Jewish community in the capital city’s story. In 2019, the society moved an 1876 synagogue on wheels – through the streets of the city – to be part of a Jewish museum under construction a few blocks north of the Washington Mall.
Abramson attended Nicolet High School and was active in BBYO-Wisconsin Region before earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She ended up in Washington, D.C., and fell in love with museums, she said. “I’m all about making history accessible,” she said.
Abramson has family in the Milwaukee area and plans to move here from Raleigh, North Carolina, “as soon as the pandemic allows.” She is already working remotely.
When she moves, she’ll be bringing along her husband, Stanton – she met him while leading a walking tour on Washington’s Jewish history – and their 2-year-old daughter Sadie.
“I am so excited to start my work with HERC. I am so in awe of what HERC has become in the last few years and that is in no small part thanks to the leadership of the board and the staff,” she said. “I think we’re just at an amazing point in time, where we can transform what Holocaust education looks like in Wisconsin.
“I’ve just never been more convinced that this work is important.”